US Syria Civilian Killed

Mohammed Hassan Masto sits next to the grave of his brother Lutfi in May 2023, in the village of Qorqanya, a rural area in northern Idlib province, Syria. Central Command said on Thursday an airstrike in Syria that was targeting an al-Qaida leader misidentified the intended target and killed Lutfi Hassan Masto instead. Omar Albam/Associated Press, file

WASHINGTON — A U.S. airstrike in Syria in May 2023 that was targeting an al-Qaida leader killed an innocent civilian instead, U.S. Central Command said Thursday, confirming early reports from residents and family members shortly after the attack.

U.S. Central Command said an investigation into the May 3 strike concluded that U.S. forces misidentified the intended al-Qaida target “and that a civilian, Mr. Lufti Hasan Masto, was struck and killed.”

Shortly after the drone strike, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said it had hit a chicken farm near the town of Harem, killing one person. And just days later, relatives and neighbors told The Associated Press that the person killed was a farmer who raised sheep, chickens and cattle and had no involvement with armed groups.

Masto’s brother, Mohamed Masto, said reports that his brother, 60, was involved with al-Qaida were “absolute lies” and his killing was “an injustice and an aggression.” Instead, Masto was simply tending his sheep when the strike hit.

Central Command said the investigation into the strike was completed last November – but it wasn’t released publicly until Thursday.

In a statement, Central Command said much of the investigation and findings are classified but acknowledged it revealed “several issues that could be improved.”

“What we can share is the investigation concluded the strike was conducted in compliance with the law of armed conflict as well as Department of Defense and CENTCOM policies,” the statement said. “We are committed to learning from this incident and improving our targeting processes to mitigate potential civilian harm.”

The Defense Department has come under fire over the course of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria for killing civilians in airstrikes. It set up a detailed investigation and review process for strikes when there are allegations of innocent people being killed.

The U.S. also continues to target al-Qaida and Islamic State leaders in Syria, including the 2017 airstrike that killed Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, a former aide to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida’s second in command in Syria.

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